Inception wants to be 'Ocean's Eleven meets The Matrix.' It's not.

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Dec 14, 2012, 4:31 PM EST

Inception is what they call a high-concept movie. A high concept is an unusual idea that drives the plot and that needs to be explained to one of the characters—usually a woman or a child—by the lead. In this film, the high concept is that by invading the dreams of others, one can extract some information or, even better, insert an idea into the dreamer's subconscious.

For example, you can insert "Hey, what if this dream was just a dream you were having inside another dream, and then you woke up and it was all a dream" into someone's head. You could even have the idea presented in a dream by a giant malformed fetus, who'd explain all these dream layers to Ellen Page. (Conveniently, a woman who looks like a child.)

I'm just kidding; nothing so cool as a giant malformed fetus stalks the dreamscapes of Inception—it's just Leonardo DiCaprio, the weirdest-looking sex symbol in the world, playing tortured criminal Cobb in this dreary 73-hour anti-epic.

Inception is not just a high-concept sci-fi film, it's a big portentous mess. One imagines the pitch meetings—"It's like Ocean's Eleven meets The Matrix, but we'll take all our casting ideas from Bugsy Malone and all our notions of proper pacing from Swedish movies about suicide."

Fetus Face and other former child stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Lukas Haas are international criminals who break into people's dreams for obscure reasons, using military technology and the creativity of architecture students to, well, fail at everything they set out to do.

The film's first misstep is rather basic—we never actually see Cobb and his gang pull off a job successfully. The hassle of getting their targets unconscious and hooked up to the machine, which is basically a set of IVs coming out of a briefcase, hardly seems worth it given the sort of jobs these guys are hired to do. Dreams are just too unstable to be used properly for criminal hijinks, especially given that Cobb's late wife Mal (Marion Cotillard, who should have her Oscar rescinded) has a tendency to appear and thwart his plans. Hacking, bribery and thumb-breaking would work better—heck, leaving Cobb awake to watch for police or dangerous spilled drinks would have entirely resolved the movie's central conflict and turned the film into a middling episode of Eureka.

And that brings us to the film's second misstep—no stakes. Cobb and company kidnap a corporate heir named Fischer (Cillian Murphy, made from 90 percent earwax, 10 percent CGI) in order to encourage him to break up the conglomerate he is due to inherit. So? We have hardly any idea what his company does, and no particular reason to root for Cobb's client over Fischer. Then there is the real A-plot, which involves Cobb struggling with the memories of his lost wife. But in much the same way that we never see the dream technology used effectively, we never see Cobb and Mal happy together, so we have no emotional commitment to seeing their situation resolved.

We're also told—about an hour in—that if dreamers die in their dreams while under sedation and are unable to wake up, they'll end up in "limbo." (The audience at the screening started laughing at this.) And limbo is ... well, it ain't much except a big black void that we don't get to see and know nothing about, except that time moves very slowly there. Sort of like this flick, actually. Inception is ultimately a two-and-a-half-hour-long movie about nothing. Watching it is like hearing a casual acquaintance recount his own dreams, which as we all know is interesting only if the dreamer has dreamed of you. Well, did you spend a few months last year hanging out in France with Fetus Face, Third Rock and Juno? Me neither. And so we're done.

But surely there's plenty of sci-fi spectacle, right? Nope, and that brings us to the third misstep—the dreamworlds aren't very dreamlike. Ellen Page plays Ariadne (yes, it's like a precocious seventh grader wrote a short story!), a prodigy architect brought in to create a multilevel dreamscape in which to trap Fischer. And what she comes up with is ... a warehouse and generic car-chase-friendly street. And a hotel. And a fortress somewhere in the Arctic Circle, presumably because director Christopher Nolan wanted to get in a little snowboarding on the studio dime. There's no real sense of surreality or the poetics of dreams in any of the locations. The one gaspworthy moment is in the trailer, and the only other visually interesting set piece is a zero-G hallway fight that the folks doing the Spider-Man reboot should pay close attention to.

Inception is also almost entirely humorless, uses a virtually static camera to create a glacial pace and features a soundscape filled with the ambient grinding that in other films would signal the imminent arrival of a giant murderous robot. In this movie, though, we just get DiCaprio's giant murderous underdeveloped face. He can act, but as Cobb, DiCaprio literally has nothing to do but bark out plot points and whatever it is he's feeling at the moment. Which is sad, mostly.

Much will be made of the final moments of the film, which inspired the audience at the advanced screening I attended to yawp at the screen—so I guess it could count as a sort of semi-satisfying raised middle finger to the world. No need for a spoiler warning here, people, just spend two seconds thinking about it. Inception is a movie about multiple layers of dreams. Got it? Yeah, that's it. Sad, mostly.